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Maya Civilization | People, geography and languages, The ancient Mayan cities, Mayan society, Cosmology and religion, Hieroglyphic writing, Arithmetic, The Mayan calendar, Astronomy, Contemporary civilization

Maya Civilization | People, geography and languages, The ancient Mayan cities, Mayan society, Cosmology and religion, Hieroglyphic writing, Arithmetic, The Mayan calendar, Astronomy, Contemporary civilization

Maya Civilization | People, geography and languages, The ancient Mayan cities, Mayan society, Cosmology and religion, Hieroglyphic writing, Arithmetic, The Mayan calendar, Astronomy, Contemporary civilization

Maya Civilization

Among the classical civilizations of Mesoamerica, the Maya Civilization and Mayan people are probably the best known. Originally from Yucatán around AD 2600 BC, it reached its peak around AD 250. AD on the territory bounded today by southern Mexico, Guatemala, northern Belize and western Honduras.

Drawing inspiration from the discoveries and ideas they inherited from older civilizations like that of the Olmecs, the Mayans mastered astronomy, developed sophisticated calendars, and invented hieroglyphic writing. This civilization was also distinguished by its ceremonial architecture, lavish of details and ornaments, and in particular by its pyramid-temples, palaces and observatories, all built without metal tools. Skillful farmers, the Mayans cleared vast expanses of tropical forests and built, where surface water was scarce, huge underground reservoirs of rainwater. They also knew how to make cloth and pottery and to trace routes among jungles and marshes to weave vast networks of trade with distant peoples.

Around 300 BC. AD, the Mayans adopted a system of hierarchical government where authority was exercised by nobles and kings. Highly structured kingdoms appeared during the classical period, from 200 to 900 AD. The society was made up of many independent states, each with a rural agricultural community and large towns built around ceremonial centers. The decline of the Mayan civilization began around AD 900. AD when – for reasons still largely ignored – the Mayans of the south abandoned their cities. When the Mayas of the Nordse are integrated into the Toltec society around 1200 AD. AD, the Mayan dynasty disappeared. Some peripheral centers, however, continued to develop until the Spanish Conquest at the start of the 16th century.

Mayan history can be said to be characterized by cycles of greatness and decline: cities flourished, then declined and were replaced by others. It can also be seen as marked by both continuity and change, determined by a religion that remains the foundation of their culture. For those who continue to respect ancient Mayan traditions, the belief in the influence of the cosmos on human existence and in the need to pay homage to the gods through rites continues to be expressed in a hybrid faith, both Christian and Maya.


The Preclassic period in Maya history stretches from the beginning of permanent village life c. 1000 BC until the advent of the Classic Period c. 250 AD, and is subdivided into Early (prior to 1000 BC), Middle (1000–400 BC), and Late (400 BC – 250 AD). Major archaeological sites of this period include Nakbe, Uaxactun, Seibal, San Bartolo, Cival, and El Mirador.

Maya society underwent a series of profound transformations between c. 100 AD and 250 AD, which resulted in the cessation of monumental building at many Preclassic cities and the inferred collapse of their political and economic systems, often characterized as the “Preclassic Collapse.

Early Preclassic (2000 BC – 1000 BC)

The roots of civilization remain unknown despite the fact that the parameters are increasingly clarified. Previous environmental data indicate the presence of farmers in the circa Mayan region. 3000 BC C., despite the fact that permanent agricultural settlements seem to have developed only gradually. Analysis of early Mayan bones indicates that, although corn already represented an important component of the diet (down 30% in Ceullo, Belize), fish, meat from game animals, and other hunted or collected were still a component. important of the diet. 3 Along with the gradual development of agriculture, basic forms of pottery appeared, first with simple designs. Around this time, the Olmec culture it began to emerge in nearby Tabasco, granting the early Maya an important trading partner and beginning a period of prolonged contact that would have profound effects on society.

Middle Preclassic (1000 BC – 400 BC)

Around the year 1000 a. C, the Mayan city of Aguada Fénix was built in Tabasco , this archaeological site corresponds to a moment of great change for Mayan society. Since before its construction, the Mayans were nomads and did not use ceramics. They lived from hunting, fishing, and growing corn. However, from the construction of Aguada Fénix, it is shown that they began to use ceramics and became sedentary. Aguada Fénix marks the beginning of the construction of the Mayan city-states that would flourish years later.

Centuries of agricultural people had formed the beginnings of a complex society: prestigious goods such as obsidian mirrors and jade mosaics began to appear, increasing the demand for more extensive trade. The canals and irrigation schemes called for coordinated human effort, with increasing scale and complexity. Gradually, the towns began to include central plazas occasionally enhanced by masonry. For example, the La Blanca site featured a central plaza over 75 feet high and with masonry features strongly resembling a head in the distinctive Olmec style.. Stelae carved in stone appeared during this period, adorned with portraits of rulers but still lacking Mayan writing. The wars seem to have intensified during this period, evidenced by more developed weapons, the rulers begin to be portrayed as warriors, massive graves and decapitated skeletons appear.

Around 900 a. C, the Pacific coastal region fell under the rule of the city-state La Blanca which collapsed around 600 BC. C, to be replaced by a policy focused on the El Ujuxte site. Another early development was probably the site of Chalchuapa , a city with extensive mounds of earth around various plazas. Even so, it was probably ruled by the first true Mayan city-state: Kaminaljuyu.In the present-day region on the shores of Lake Miraflores, Kaminaljuyu developed a powerful governmental structure, organized massive irrigation campaigns and intricate stone monuments to its rulers. These monuments clearly depict war captives, often showing rulers holding weapons, indicate the warlike politics of Kaminaljuyu dominating the Guatemalan highlands for centuries. In Kaminaljuyu the main export was the essential resource obsidian , for the elaboration of arrows, knives, and other weapons as well as prestigious goods such as mirrors.

Although it is difficult to identify the ethnicity of the people by their archaeological remains, it seems that during this period the Mayans began a systematic expansion towards the north, occupying the Petén Cuenca , cities such as El Mirador , Tikal , Calakmul , and Tayasal would be built . The dominant site of these early settlers was Nakbe in the El Mirador basin, where the first Mayan Ball Court and the first Mayan stone path were built. The rulers of Nakbe built various stone platforms and intricate stone designs and stucco monuments.

During this period, the Olmec culture reached its zenith, centered in the capital of La Venta in Tabasco near the early Mayan centers. Speakers of Mixe – Zoquean languages ​​thus the Olmecs are generally recognized as the first civilization in America. Its capital, La Venta, is considered the first planned and mapped city, and contains extensive engineering work and stone monuments, including the distinctive Olmec stone heads. The Olmecs shared several characteristics with the later Maya, including extensive jaguar worship, a diet dominated by corn, and the use of the cacao plant.Several words were introduced to the Mixe – Zoquean Mayan language, presumably due to Olmec influence. 6 Many of these concepts of prestige and high culture [the example needed], indicating that the Middle Preclassic Maya were deeply impressed and influenced by their northwestern neighbors

Late Preclassic (400 BC – 100 BC)

The Late Preclassic two powerful rival states emerged on monumental scales, Kaminaljuyu in the highlands and El Mirador in the lowlands.

Late Preclassic (100 BC – 250 BC)

The murals found at San Bartolo provide important information regarding mythology and royal inauguration ritual around 100 BC. C.

Preclassic “collapse”

The collapse of classical Mayan civilization is the phenomenon of decline and abandonment that affected most of the Mayan cities of the Lowlands at the end of the Mesoamerican Classical Period (750 – 1050).

The story of the lost civilization that mysteriously collapsed for an unknown reason has captured the popular imagination for years. what is not so widely known is that there were in fact two “Collapses” one at the end of the Preclassic and a more famous one at the end of the Classic. The Preclassic collapse refers to the systematic decline and abandonment of important cities such as Kaminaljuyu and El Mirador in around 100 BC. A number of theories have been proposed to explain this “Collapse”, but the consensus does not agree here or with the more “famous” collapse between the Classic and Postclassic periods.

The End of the Olmecs Civilization | Why did the ancient Olmec civilization disappear?

People, geography and languages

The Mayan homeland, known as Mesoamerica, spans five countries: Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras and El Salvador. Some findings now suggest that the people now known as the Mayans actually migrated from North America to the highlands of Guatemala, possibly as early as 2600 BC. AD, to regroup into farming villages. The Mayan culture of the Preclassic period is largely inspired by the Olmec civilization, which preceded it and which peaked around 1200 BC. J.-C.

At the height of the Mayan civilization, that is to say the classical period (200 to 900 AD), the Mayans almost entirely occupied an area of ​​some 311,000 square kilometers which was divided into three large areas:

the lowland tropical rainforests stretching from northwestern Honduras through the Petén region, Guatemala, to Belize and Chiapas. This was the heart of classical Mayan civilization, including the cities of Copán, Yaxchilán, Tikal and Palenque.

The highlands of Guatemala and the Pacific coast, where Aztec influence during the Preclassic period caused cultural development differences between the Mayans of this region and those of the central region or the lowlands.
the north of the Yucatán peninsula where the sites of Labná, Chichen Itzá and Uxmal are located. The northern lowlands are characterized by scrub vegetation, thin soil and scant surface water. After the fall of the lowland city-states, which marked the end of the classical period, migrations to Yucatán, where the Mayan culture continued to flourish until the arrival of the Toltec warriors, increased.


A series of streams originate in the mountains and flow to the Pacific Ocean, on the west coast, and to the Gulf of Mexico, in the southern lowlands of Petén. These streams and rivers were used as traffic routes and made it possible to go from one city to another by canoe. Most of the Maya cities of the classical period were built near rivers that provided water for human consumption and provided access to trade routes. In the lowlands of Yucatán to the north, however, there are no major rivers.


With the exception of the high volcanic peaks covered with glaciers, most of Mesoamerica is covered by dense rainforest. The rainforest is a kind of greenhouse, providing heat, light and water, and producing a very large number of plant species. Unlike the rich humus of temperate forests, the soil of rainforests is thin and poor. To survive, tropical plants and trees have developed extremely efficient roots that absorb nutrients from dead plants (which break down quickly due to heat and humidity) before they are washed away.
Soil: The best soils are found in the valleys of the southern highlands, where volcanic eruptions have enriched the land. The spring climate and the fertile valleys have made this region a favorable place for human presence despite the threat of volcanoes. Today, it is home to most of the Mayan population.

Although the Mayan-speaking peoples who settled in these regions resembled each other in many respects, their geographical dispersal led to the evolution of several languages which are of common origin, but sufficiently different from each other to ensure that the different groups of Mayan origin can no longer understand each other today. This linguistic divergence also complicates efforts to translate the hieroglyphic inscriptions found at the location of city-states. Scholars still seek to trace the evolution of the Mayan languages today and interpretations differ, although it is generally agreed that four or five language groups appeared in the Middle Preclassic period (900 to 300 BC. .).

Read also: Hanging Gardens Babylon | Location, History and Description

The ancient Mayan cities

The Mayan cities formed, with their agricultural hinterland, administrative and ritual centers. The great Mayan cities were very populous. In the very center of Tikal, for example, stood 15.6 square kilometers, some 10,000 buildings, ranging from pyramid-temples to thatched-roof huts. The population of Tikal is estimated at over 60,000 inhabitants, a much higher density than that of an average city in Europe or America at the same time.

A Mayan city in the Classical period usually consisted of a series of layered platforms topped with masonry structures that could be large pyramid temples and palaces as well as simple detached houses. Around these structures were arranged vast courtyards or esplanades. Mayan architecture was characterized by the abundance of low relief carvings and wall paintings adorning the buildings, which denoted a strong sense of art and decoration. In large cities like Tikal, roads or stone paths sometimes linked imposing buildings and large groups to each other.

The cities, rarely arranged in the form of quadrilaterals, seem to have developed without a preconceived plan, the temples and palaces having been destroyed and rebuilt many times over the centuries. The apparently arbitrary arrangement of the Mayan cities complicates the drawing of their borders. Some are delimited by ditches while others are sometimes, though rarely, surrounded by fortifications. Walls were not usually built around the sites, with the exception of some recently discovered cities dating from the collapse of the Mayan civilization where they had thus guarded against the invader.

The cities, rarely arranged in the form of quadrilaterals, seem to have developed without a preconceived plan, the temples and palaces having been destroyed and rebuilt many times over the centuries. The apparently arbitrary arrangement of the Mayan cities complicates the drawing of their borders. Some are delimited by ditches while others are sometimes, though rarely, surrounded by fortifications. Walls were not usually built around the sites, with the exception of some recently discovered cities dating from the collapse of the Mayan civilization where they had thus guarded against the invader.

The pyramid-temples represent the most impressive jewels of the Mayan cities. Constructed of hand-cut limestone blocks, they overlooked the surrounding buildings. Temples usually had one or more rooms, but these were so small that they could only be used for ceremonies reserved for initiates. There was symbolic significance to the alignments of ceremonial buildings.

If the temples were the most imposing structures, more were the one-story palaces, similar in appearance, but with much lower platforms. These palaces contained a few dozen rooms with plastered walls. Often, unlike pyramid-temples, one or two interior courtyards were set up within the walls of the palaces.

We do not know exactly what these “palaces” were used for. Chiefs or other members of the elite may have lived there, although the rooms were tiny and uncomfortable. According to archaeologists, it is more likely that the nobles lived in buildings that have now disappeared. It could also be that monks, nuns or priests lived in these “cells”, although the existence of ecclesiastical or monastic orders among the ancient Mayans is not attested.

In some areas, groundwater was scarce, so in large centers such as Tikal, large reservoirs were probably built to serve the population during the dry season. Many sites also had playgrounds. Some were equipped with steam baths, probably of Mexican origin. In front of the great temples and palaces of the important cities, there usually stood, in the stucco of the terraces and esplanades, a multitude of pillars or stelae. These stelae, sometimes placed on platforms, were then used to support the pyramid-temples and it was not uncommon for flat and low altars, rounded in shape, to be placed in front of them.

Among the constants of the architectural principles are the corbelled vault and the ridge crowning the roof. Unlike European arches, the vault did not have a key, giving it the appearance of more of a narrow triangle than an arch. Although this unusual shape has sometimes been attributed to a lack of knowledge of the techniques required to make keys, some argue that it was a deliberate choice. The vault still had nine strata of stone representing the nine strata of the underground world; the superimposed keystone would have constituted an additional element, foreign to Mayan cosmology.

The ridge of the roof consisted of a stone trellis surmounting the already high structure of the pyramid-temples. Perhaps the Mayan architects, fearing that these temples were not grandiose enough, wanted to enhance them in this way. The crest was always abundantly decorated with reliefs painted in plaster, like the facades of the temples. The entrances, doorposts and facades of many other Mayan buildings were also decorated with a multitude of wood or stone carvings.

Mayan Civilization Locations

There are hundreds of significant Maya heritage sites, and thousands of smaller ones. The largest and most important of them are:

Mayan society

The Yucatán Peninsula was first occupied by hunters and gatherers who arrived around 11,000 years ago. These nomads lived in small family bands. Around 2500 BC. AD, they began to cultivate corn and abandoned nomadism to settle in villages surrounded by corn fields.
The Mayans created arable land by cutting down and burning vegetation. They cultivated corn and secondary plants such as beans, squash and tobacco. In the western plateaus, they cleared the jungle for crops. After a period of two years, they cultivated new fields, leaving the old ones fallow for ten years before reseeding them.

They lived in small villages made up of groups of houses occupied by extended families. Their thatched-roof houses were usually one-room huts with walls made of crisscrossed wooden posts covered with dried mud. These huts were mostly used for sleeping, daily chores such as cooking were done outside in a central common space. The division of labor between men and women was clearly defined: the men maintained the huts and tended the cornfields, and the women prepared meals, made clothes and looked after the needs of the family. These ancient farming methods and family traditions have survived over the centuries and are still the way of life of many rural communities.

By the Middle Preclassic, Olmec beliefs and ideas about the hierarchical organization of society had probably spread in Mayan society. The southern Mayans, in the mountain valleys, chose to regroup under the authority of high-ranking chieftains or kings, but most of the lowland Mayans resisted the pressure, preferring tribal confederations that recognized no power in the above the elders of their villages. The recent Preclassic saw the appearance of the ahau, or great king, and the rise of kingdoms throughout the Mayan land. Over the next millennium, the principles of kingship would dominate the life of the Mayans.

In each Mayan kingdom, the society was composed, in a hierarchical order, of kings, nobles, masters, scribes, warriors, architects, administrators, artisans, merchants, workers and ‘farmers. Besides the capital, there were a number of distant secondary centers, towns of a certain size or simple hamlets and farms inhabited by an extended family.

There are several reasons why the Mayans moved from small farming communities administered by local officials to complex kingdoms in the Classical period. The discovery of ways to collect rainwater and the creation of new arable land for agriculture played a big part in this development. A not insignificant labor force was organized to build and maintain the hydraulic systems (reservoirs, cisterns, canals) and to take care of the corn fields. These innovations have made it possible to increase food production and create a surplus, develop trade with neighboring states, and therefore promote population growth. The fact that a government was needed to administer the increasingly numerous and complex urban and rural activities may be part of the reason why the Mayans endowed themselves with kings.

As towns grew, in part due to the arrival of people from outside the region, they increasingly nibbled away at arable land. Population growth, droughts and poor harvests may have been the cause of severe food shortages and malnutrition. When harvests were poor, people may have been forced to move elsewhere to survive. Other factors in the decline of the southern lowland towns around 900 AD. AD are perhaps:

Whatever the reasons, the Mayans decided to return to a simpler way of life by growing corn and living in rural villages quite similar to those today.

The northern Mayans also entered a new phase when they came under the influence of their Toltec neighbors and other groups who settled in the Yucatán Peninsula. This era continued until the arrival of the Spaniards in 1541, which marked the beginning of a dark period when the books of the Mayans were burned and their religion was attempted to disappear.

Cosmology and religion of the Maya Civilization

The Mayans believed in the recurrence of the cycles of creation and destruction and for them the eras lasted, according to our modern system of time computation, some 5,200 years. The current cycle would have started in 3113 or 3114 BC. BC on our calendar and is expected to end in the year 2011 or 2012.

It is not easy, according to the knowledge we have today of the Mayan civilization, to interpret their cosmology. It seems obvious, however, that the Mayans saw the Earth as a flat, square shape. Each of its four angles was located at a cardinal point and was represented by a color: red in the east, white in the north, black in the west, and yellow in the south. The center was green.

Some Mayans also believed that the sky was layered and that each of its four angles was supported by a deity of impressive musculature called “Bacab”. For others, the sky was supported by four trees of different colors and species, and the green ceiba, or liard, stood in the center.

To the Mayans, the flattened shape of the Earth represented the back of a giant crocodile resting in a basin filled with water lilies. In the sky, the crocodile’s counterpart was a two-headed serpent, a notion no doubt attributable to the fact that the Mayan term designating the sky resembles the word serpent. In hieroglyphic characters, the body of the sky serpent is represented not only by its own sign – crossed bars – but also by those of the Sun, Moon, Venus and other celestial bodies.

The sky was made up of 13 strata stages

The sky was made up of 13 strata stages, each with its own divinity. At the highest level was the muan bird, a kind of barn owl. The underworld consisted of nine strata ruled by nine Night Lords. The underworld was a cold and inhospitable place to which most of the Mayans were destined after their death. This underground universe also welcomed celestial bodies like the Sun, the Moon and Venus every evening, once they crossed the threshold of the horizon.

Very little is known about the Mayan pantheon. It contained an incalculable number of deities, of which at least 166 bear a name. This proliferation is partly explained by the fact that each of the divinities presented itself in multiple aspects. Some had more than one gender, others could be both young and old. Each god representing a celestial body had in the underworld a different face which was revealed each evening at his “death”.

Some Mayan sources also mention a single supreme god, called Itzamná, author of writing and patron of the arts and sciences. His wife, Ix Chel, was the goddess of weaving, medicine and childbirth and the ancient goddess of the moon.

The Mayan priests were not celibate and it often happened that their sons succeeded them. The role of priests was closely linked to calendar and astronomy. They controlled learning and rituals and they were responsible for the counting of time, festivals, ceremonies, fateful days and seasons, divination, events, treatment of illnesses, writing and genealogies. .

All Mayan rituals were dictated by the sacred, 260-day cycle calendar, and all demonstrations had symbolic significance. Sexual abstinence was strictly observed before and during these events, and self-harm was commonly practiced to supply the blood with which to anoint religious articles. The elite were obsessed with blood – their own and that of the prisoners – and the rite of bloodletting was an important aspect of any major event in the Mayan calendar. The bleeding was also used to reconcile the gods and at the beginning of the decline of the Mayan civilization, the chiefs who possessed vast territories ran, it was said, from one city to another to practice this rite to save their kingdom in the process of perdition.


The custom was that prisoners, slaves, especially children and especially orphans and illegitimate children that were bought especially for the occasion, are offered as sacrifices. Before the Toltec era, animals were sacrificed more than humans – turkeys, dogs, squirrels, quails and iguanas being the species deemed worthy of being offered to the Mayan gods.

The priests received the help of four elderly men called chacs, in honor of the Rain God of the same name, to perform human sacrifices. These men held the arms and legs of the sacrificed victim while another officiant named Nacom opened his chest. A shaman named Chilam also attended the ceremony and received, while in a trance, messages from the gods whose prophecies were interpreted by the assembly of priests.

The Mayans believed that when you died you entered the Underworld through a cave or cenote. When kings died, they took the path related to the cosmic movement of the sun and fell into the Underworld, but because they possessed supernatural powers they were reborn in the Heavenly World and became gods. Dying a natural death made the Mayans tremble, especially since the dead did not automatically go to Heaven. Ordinary people were buried under the floor of their house, their mouths filled with food and a jade bead, and they were surrounded by religious objects and articles that they had used during their lifetime. The tombs of the priests contained books.

People of the high nobility were cremated – a practice of Mexican origin – and their mortuary temple was erected above their urn. In the early days, the nobles were buried in sepulchres under mausoleums. Some Mayans even mummified the heads of deceased lords. These were placed in family oratories and “fed” at regular intervals.

After the Spanish conquest, the Mayan and Catholic belief systems began to merge. According to some archaeologists, the two systems showed many similarities: in both cases, incense was burned during ritual ceremonies, iconolatry was practiced, there were priests and long pilgrimages were organized on designated ritual calendar days.

Most Mayans today observe a religion interwoven with ancient Mayan notions, animism and Catholicism. Some still believe, for example, that their village is the ceremonial center of a universe supported in the four corners by gods. When one of these gods shifts his burden, an earthquake occurs. The celestial vault is the domain of the Sun, the Moon and the stars; however, the Sun is clearly associated with God the Father or Jesus Christ while the Moon is associated with the Virgin Mary.

Many Mayans are convinced that their mountains are like the ancient pyramid temples. The mountains and the hills are also perceived as the abodes of ancestral deities: father and mother figures who are honored in their abode of prayers and to whom are offered incense, black hens, candles and candles. spirits. Many Mayan villages still see shamans praying for the souls of the sick at places of pilgrimage in the mountains. The Mayans also believe in an Earth Lord – a fat and voracious mongrel dwelling in caves and cenotes, who controls all waterholes and to whom lightning and rain are owed.

We also believe in the supernatural forces of forest spirits. At the four entrances to certain present-day villages, four pairs of crosses and four jaguar spirits, called balam, are placed, whose function is to drive out demons. We still invoke the deities of the forest in agricultural rites and we still believe that bad winds, which circulate freely in the world, are the cause of disease and suffering just like the aluxob, these dwarfs with the appearance of goblins, which bring bad luck.

Hieroglyphic writing

The Mayan writing system is considered by archaeologists to be the most advanced of the Mesoamerican systems.

The Mayans used 800 individual signs or glyphs, arranged two by two in columns reading left to right and top to bottom. The Mayan glyphs represented words or syllables combining to denote any concept: a number, a period of time, a member of royalty – by name or title – an event that occurred during the dynasty, a god, a scribe, a sculptor, an object, a building, a place or a dish. Hieroglyphic inscriptions were either carved in stone or wood on monuments and architectural works, or painted on paper, plaster walls or ceramic objects.

The basic unit of the Mayan writing system is the glyph cartridge

The basic unit of the Mayan writing system is the glyph cartridge, which is equivalent to words or phrases in a modern language. The cartridges could contain only three or four glyphs or on the contrary contain up to 50. Certain glyphs also had value of prefix or suffix. The system was not alphabetical.

The Mayan script is difficult to interpret for a number of reasons. First of all, glyphs don’t just represent sounds or concepts, they are sometimes mixed, which makes them difficult to read. Additionally, many glyphs can have more than one meaning, as concepts can be transcribed in a variety of ways. Numbers, for example, can be transcribed using number symbols or using graphic symbols representing the god associated with them, or both. Some glyphs, while illustrating the same concept, also correspond to more than one phonetic symbol. For example, the name of the chief of Palenque, Pacal, which literally means “hand mask”, sometimes appears as a pictogram representing a hand mask, sometimes as a phonetic transcription in three syllables “pa-cal- the ”and sometimes in both ways, pictorial and phonetic.

The decryption of texts has been made easier thanks to modern computers, illustration techniques and the knowledge accumulated over a century of scientific research. Nevertheless, the Mayan hieroglyphs could not be fully deciphered: one can only interpret them, and not read them. To date, nearly 85 percent of the hieroglyphics have been deciphered.

Among the Mayans, writing was a sacred gift from the gods and most people could not read. The knowledge of reading and writing was the preserve of a small elite who believed themselves endowed with the privilege of entering into direct communication with the gods and of acting as an intermediary between them and the common people.

From the earliest days of their history, the Mayans used writing as an instrument of propaganda rather as a way of forcefully recording historical events. In a hierarchical society where the elite fought for positions of prestige and power, writing served to strengthen the military power of the leader and to legitimize his descent from the ancestral nobility and divine forces. The purpose of the inscriptions on stone monuments was to paint the chief in the most favorable light possible; they mainly related historical events, marriages, births, military campaigns and victories as well as the deeds and actions of the rulers and the activities of the dynasty.

The glyphs were also painted on codices made from deerskin or bleached pulp from the fig tree, covered with a thin layer of plaster and folded like an accordion. The inscriptions on the codices were painted by highly trained scribes who recorded rituals, chronologies and important events.

Most of the codices were burned down during the 16th century by the Spaniards who were trying to convert the Mayans to Christianity. Those that were spared, however, are a valuable source of information about the religious beliefs of the Mayans and their ritual cycle, and they contain data on the gods associated with each day of the Mayan calendar and on the astronomical tables describing the cycles of the Mayans. Venus and other celestial bodies.

After the arrival of the Spaniards in the 16th century, a number of Mayan dictionaries, glossaries and prayer books appeared. These collections greatly facilitate the linguistic analysis of hieroglyphics. The Mayans also learned to transcribe their own language using the Roman alphabet and their more recent works are no longer written in hieroglyphics but phonetically transcribed in Latin characters.

The four codices that we know of deal exclusively with religion and astronomy. They are mostly written in contemporary Yucatec, one of the 31 Mayan languages. The four pre-Hispanic codices are as follows:
Other important Mayan works include the following:

Mayan hieroglyphs were first listed in 1962. Since 1980, much progress has been made in the encryption of new glyphs found at Palenque, Tikal and elsewhere. This work, which continues, gives hope that one day many of the mysteries surrounding the Mayans will be clarified.

Arithmetic (Mayan mathematical system)

The Mayan mathematical system was the most advanced of the systems in America. The calculation was carried out using only three symbols: the point represented the unit, the bar, the number five and the shell, the zero. The Mayans used various combinations of these three symbols to enable even uneducated people to perform the simple calculations they needed in the practice of their profession or for their trade, and also to record, in their calendar, past and future events. They also understood the value of zero, a remarkable achievement compared to other civilizations in the world which had not yet discovered this concept at the time.

The Mayans used the vicesimal system for their numbering – a system based on the number 20 rather than the number 10. So instead of changing columns to 10, 100, 1000 and then 10,000, like we do, the Mayans went from 1 to 20, to 400, to 8000, then to 160,000.

Mayan numbers, including calendar dates, were layered from bottom to top, vertically. The number 3, for example, was represented using three dots aligned horizontally. The number 12 corresponded to two bars superimposed and surmounted by two aligned points, and the 19, of three superimposed bars and surmounted by four aligned points. Numbers greater than 19 were represented using the same sequence of symbols, except that a dot was placed above each group of 20. Thus, to denote the number 32, the symbols of 12 and l were used. a point representing an additional group of 20 units was added above this sequence. This system reproduced itself over and over again.

The set of mathematical symbols allowed, even people deprived of education, to perform addition and subtraction for commercial purposes. To add two digits, the symbols of each of them were placed side by side and then joined into one. Thus, two bars and a point for 11 could be added to a bar equivalent to five, which gave three bars superimposed and surmounted by a point, the equivalent of the number 16.

According to the Mayans, some figures were more sacred than others because of the special role they played. The 20 was one of them because it matched the number of fingers and toes humans could rely on. The 5 represented the number of fingers of the hand or the foot and the 13, the total number of deities of the original pantheon. The 52 was also attributed a sacred character since it was the number of years included in a “bundle”, a unit similar to that of our century. And since there were 400 gods of the night, this number also had a sacred value.

The Mayans also used the heads of glyphs as number symbols. The number 1, for example, often bears the emblem of a young earth goddess, the number 2, that of a god of sacrifice, and so on. These symbols are similar to other glyphs depicting deities, which did not fail to create some confusion in the decryption, especially since digital glyphs were sometimes compounds. The number 13, for example, could appear as a glyph head representing 10 combined with a glyph head for 3. You could also combine the numeric glyph heads with dots, bars and typos.

Arithmetic was a discipline important enough among the Mayans to feature in their works of art. On wall paintings, for example, one recognizes arithmetic scribes, or mathematicians, by the numbered manuscripts they carry under their arms. The first of these figures, identified on a glyph, was female.

The Mayan calendar

The Mayan calendar probably dates, in its final form, to the first century BC. AD and it would be the product of the Olmec civilization. The calculation of the Mayan priests was so precise that the correction of their calendar is ten-thousandth of a day more exact than the calendar in use today in the world.

Of all the ancient time computation systems, those of the Mayans and other Mesoamerican systems are the most complex and detailed. Their month was 20 days and the calendar year was twofold: a sacred 260-day cycle, referred to as Tzolkin, and the 365-day vague year, or Haab. These two calendars coincided every 52 years. This 52-year period was referred to as the “beam” and for the Mayans it represented the equivalent of a century to us.

The sacred 260-day cycle is made up of two shorter cycles: the numbers 1 to 13, and 20 different day names. The name of each day is represented by a god who carries time across the sky, marking the passage from day to night. The names of the days are: Imix, Ik, Akbal, Kan, Chicchan, Cimi, Manik, Lamat, Muluc, Oc, Chuen, Eb, Ben, Ix, Men, Cib, Caban, Eiznab, Cauac and Ahau. Some of these names refer to animal deities like Chuen (the dog) and Ahau (the eagle); some archaeologists have pointed out that the animal sequence in the Mayans parallels that of the lunar zodiac signs of many civilizations in the Orient and Southeast Asia.

According to the 260-day tzolkin formula, time is not linear but moves in concentric circles similar to a spiral. The two cycles of 13 and 20 intertwine and repeat themselves over and over again. The calendar therefore begins with 1 Imix, 2 Ik, 3 Akbal, and so on until 13 Ben, after which it continues with 1 Ix, 2 Men, etc. In this context, the day Imix becomes 8 Imix. The last day of this 260-day cycle is Ahau 13. No one knows for sure the origin of this unusual calendar. The 260-day cycle can encompass several celestial events, including the configuration of Mars, the appearances of Venus, the eclipse seasons, and even the interval between conception and the birth of humans.

The 260-day calendar was used to determine important activities related to gods. It was used to name people, predict the future and decide the right dates for big events like fights or weddings, for example. Each day had its omens and associations, and the inexorable cadence of the 20 days evoked a machine for predicting the future guiding the destiny of the Mayans.

The vague year, or haab, of 365 days was similar to our modern calendar; it consisted of 18 months of 20 days each and ended with a period of five days. The secular 365-day calendar mostly related to seasons and agriculture and was based on the solar cycle. The Mayan 18 months were as follows, in order: Pop, Uo, Zip, Zotz, Tzec, Xuc, Yaxkin, Mol, Chen, Yax, Zac, Ceh, Mac, Kankin, Maun, Pax, Kayab, Cumku. The period of bad luck, which lasted five days and was called uayeb, was considered a critical period, marked by danger, death and bad luck.

The Mayan solar new year would have started at some point during our month of July, with the Mayan month Pop. The 20-day Mayan month always started with the positioning of the month, followed by the days numbered from 1 to 19, then by the positioning of the next month and so on. This process is consistent with the Mayan notion that each month influences the next. The Mayan New Year therefore began with 1 Pop followed by 2 Pop and so on until 19 Pop, after which the month Uo was born, written 0 Uo then 1 Uo, 2 Uo, etc.

The combination of the tzolkin and the haab produced a cycle of 18,980 days, corresponding to about 52 solar years. The end of this 52-year cycle was particularly feared because it was a time when the world could come to an end and the sky could crumble if the gods were not satisfied with the way humans. had fulfilled their obligations.

The 52-year cycle, however, was not adequate for measuring the uninterrupted passage of time through the ages. So we designed another calendar called the long count, based on the following units of time: one kin (one day); a uinal (a month of 20 kin); a tun (a year of 360 kin or 18 uinal); a katun (20 tunes); a baktun (20 katunes or 400 years). There were also longer units of time like pictun, calabtun, kinchiltun, and alaun. Each alaum was equivalent to 64 million years.

Mayan calender to indicate dates

There are two ways to date an event according to the Mayan calendars. The long count is calculated from the current cycle of creation and corresponds to our era. The date of this creation is fixed at the year 3114 or 3113 BC. AD of our modern calendar. This date is the starting point for all subsequent calculations – just as we fix the dates in our modern history from the birth of Christ.

To indicate a date, the Mayan calendar used five reference points in the following order: baktun, katun, tun, uin, kin. We wrote, for example: 10 Chuen 4 Kumku, which corresponds to 9 baktuns (1,296,000 days), 10 katuns (72,000 days), 19 tuns (6,840 days), 5 uinals (100 days) ), 11 kin (11 days) or 1,374,951 days (approximately 3,764 solar years) since the beginning of the last Creation which is in the cycle of the Mayan calendar at position 10 Chuen, 4 Kumku – or around our year 651 or 652 apr. J.-C.

One of the most important roles of the calendar was not to fix dates with precision in time, but to establish a correlation between the actions of Mayan leaders and historical and mythological events. The deeds of the gods during the mythical days were reproduced by the Mayan chiefs, often on the anniversary of the event – a date that was carefully calculated by the Mayan priests. The calendar was also used to designate the timing of past and future events. Some Mayan monuments, for example, record the dates of events that happened 90 million years ago, while others predict events that will take place 3,000 years later.

The calendar also predicted the future as is the case with our zodiac calendar. The Mayans, for example, believed that a person’s date of birth or the sign under which they were born determined their fate during their lifetime. The newborn was therefore under the influence of a particular god throughout its existence. Some gods were more benevolent than others, and a child born under happy auspices was considered lucky. The child born under the influence of a less beneficent god was to be favored all his life – especially during disturbing times like that of the uayeb of the solar year.

Scholars have often wondered why the Mayan calendar was so complex. The reason is, in part, that it was up to the Mayan priests to decide the dates of sacred events and the agricultural cycle. So it didn’t matter much that ordinary people understood the calendar, and priests could make it airtight at will.

The ancient Mayan cycle is still in effect in southern Mexico and in the Mayan highlands where the calendar priests are still busy counting the 260 days for divination acts and other shamanistic activities. These priests juggled the cycles of time and learned operations to calculate them, especially when it came to dates which made cycles and numbers coincide. They maintain the tradition today in southern Mexico and in the Mayan highlands.

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Astronomy of Maya Civilization

Of all the ancient calendars in the world, those of the Mayan civilization and other Mesoamerican civilizations are the most complex and precise. Calculations of the concordance between the Mayan 260-day and 365-day cycles give almost identical results in the tropics to those of the current solar year, with a margin of error of only 19 minutes.

The Mayan priest-astronomers searched the heavens for signs. To trace the complex movements of the sun, stars and planets, they had built observatories and gnomons measuring the shadows cast and they observed the horizon; on the basis of these observations, they made learned calculations and noted them in their chronicles or “codices”. They then drew up calendars to record the movement of the stars and the passage of time. The Mayans also kept detailed records of the phases of the moon without, however, officially recording this data in a lunar calendar.

In the Mayan cities, the ceremonial buildings were rigorously aligned with the direction of the compass. At the time of the spring and autumn equinoxes, for example, the sun’s rays penetrated through the loopholes of a Mayan observatory, lighting up its interior walls.

The principle of alignment was also applied outside temples and palaces. The best-known example is in Chichén Itzá, the main Mayan city on the Yucatán Peninsula. For centuries, a crowd has gathered there every year to observe the magic of the sun illuminating the steps of a pyramid dedicated to Quetzalcoatl, god incarnate in the guise of a feathered serpent. During the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, the sun gradually illuminates the steps and the head of the reptile at the bottom of the staircase of the pyramid, a play of light giving life to the serpent which seems to wave from the top of the sacred mountain towards the Earth. .
Why then did the Mayans go to so much trouble to align their places and their ceremonial temples with the sun and the stars? Partly, no doubt, to pay homage to the gods. Pacal’s tomb in Palenque, for example, is aligned with the Sun. At the winter solstice, the Sun sets behind the high cornice that looms behind the pyramid of Pacal, in the center of the temple vault. Step by step, the Sun advances in the sky, enters the Temple of Inscriptions, illuminates the back wall, then, in its course towards the horizon, it seems to descend the steps of the temple to land on the tomb. The death of Pacal and his entry into the underground world echo, by the alignment of his tomb, the death of the Sun and its plunge into the universe of darkness.

The Mayans built observatories in many of their cities and they aligned important structures with the movements of celestial bodies. It is sometimes groups of temples, like the three that we see at Uaxactún, which mark the position of the rising Sun at the time of the summer solstice, the two equinoxes and the winter solstice. The type of architecture that we find like the Caracol, in Chichén Itzá, is also a function of the appearance of celestial bodies like the Pleiades and Venus. One of the temples of Uxmal contains hundreds of Venusian symbols.

Astronomical metaphors and celestial events defined the ritual landscape of the Mayan chiefs. The transfers of royal power, for example, seem, in certain centers, to have taken place at the time of the summer solstice. In Palenque, we can read on an inscription that the son of Pacal, Chan-Bahlum, inaugurated the complex of the Temple of the Cross on July 23, 690 – during the conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn, Mars and the Moon. In the eyes of the Mayans, this event may have represented the primordial birth of the three ancestral deities of the Palenque dynasty of the original Mother (the Moon) and appeared to them as the perfect opportunity to dedicate a monument to their accession to power.

Mayan chiefs, carved or painted on murals, display symbols of the heavens, including a belt or tiara depicting a series of symbols related to the Moon, the Sun, Venus, day, night and sky. They are also seen carrying bars adorned like diadems to indicate that they had a mandate from heaven or else seated, surrounded by a halo giving them celestial power. The chiefs also readily associated themselves with beneficent deities like the God of the Sun and, like the priests, they liked to “clothe themselves with the heavens” wrapped in jaguar skin whose speckles sparkled like the stars of the firmament.

Mayans also believed that the movements of the Sun and the Moon were, at every stage of their trajectory, guided by the gods

The Mayans also believed that the movements of the Sun and the Moon were, at every stage of their trajectory, guided by the gods. In their eyes, the Sun and the Moon, deep in the darkness of the night, continued to travel in the underground universe, under the threat of evil deities who wanted to curb their momentum. From there to believe that the heavenly bodies were in great need of men and their sacred rites such as self-harm, torture and human sacrifice, there was only one step. For them it was simply the price to pay for the survival of the universe. Death thus became a privilege conferring immortality on the disappeared or on those who offered themselves as a holocaust.

The repetitive cycles of creation and destruction described in Mayan mythology served to remind humans of the importance of their obligations to the gods who ensured the survival of mankind and the price to be paid for their failings. According to the sacred calendar of the Mayans, each 52-year period brought the threat of the destruction of the universe. The gods and the other forces of creation and chaos then engaged in a merciless battle in the universe of mortals determining the fate of each creature of this world.

The planet Venus had special significance for the Mayans and Quetzalcoatl, for example, is currently identified with Venus. The Dresden Codex, one of the four Mayan chronicles spared, also contains a detailed record of the apparitions of Venus and was used to predict the future. The war itself was started by command of the heavens, again by the planet Venus. Venus’ war insignia can be seen on stelae and other carvings, while raids and captures were regulated by her appearances, especially in the form of the evening “star”. Throughout Mesoamerica, the art of warfare was often tuned to the movements of Venus.

Mayan mythology, astrology, and calendars were integrated into a unique belief system. The Mayans observed the sky and calendars to predict solar and lunar eclipses, cycles of the planet Venus, and movements of constellations. These phenomena were not seen as mechanical movements but as acts of deities – mythical events recurring from Creation.

There are still calendar priests in the Mayan regions today who compute the sacred 260-day cycle for acts of divination and other shamanistic activities. Many elements of this belief system originated from the sky, but priest-astronomers intervened on earth to superimpose the sacred structure of the cosmos on the activities of the earthly world.

Contemporary civilization of Maya Civilization

The Mayans number around six million today and they form the largest agglomeration of indigenous peoples in northern Peru. Some of the largest groups are found in Mexico, the largest among them being the Yucatecs (300,000 inhabitants), Tzotzil (120,000 inhabitants) and Tzeltal (80,000 inhabitants). The Yucatecs inhabit the warm, tropical Yucatán peninsula, while the Tzotzil and Tzeltal live in the highlands of Chiapas. Other important groups include the Quiché and Cakchiquel of Guatemala, the Chontal and Chol of Mexico, and the Kekchi of Belize. These 31 Mayan groups in Central America speak different, mutually unintelligible languages, although they all belong to the Mayan language family.

Despite modernization and intermarriages between indigenous peoples and Spanish immigrants, many Mayan communities have managed to preserve their identity and customs. This phenomenon is partly explained by the fact that unlike other geographically dispersed peoples in Mexico and Central America, the Mayans were, through the ages, confined to a monolithic territory extending from the southern part. from Mexico, Guatemala, Belize and the western borders of Honduras and El Salvador.

The Lacandón people

The Lacandón people of the tropical forests of Chiapas are one of the Mayan groups most threatened with extinction. The Lacandóns, only 200 in number at the start of the 1980s, have aroused great interest among researchers. Having never been Christianized, they still practice a variant of the ancient Mayan religion. However, they are under enormous pressure from the modern world. In the 1950s, they were still seen hunting with bows and arrows. Since then, roads have been developed in the forest for travelers and tourists and it is not uncommon to see Lacandóns leaving their forest habitat to sell the products of their crafts. It is feared that the way of life of the Lacandóns will hardly extend beyond the end of the century.

The Mayans, however, have greater problems than those posed by tourism. Some regions have been the scene of intense political clashes in recent decades, causing great loss of life and leading to a devastating economic crisis. Many Mayans were killed in civil wars, and others, from countries like Guatemala, were forced to flee their homes and seek refuge in Mexico, the United States or Canada. Human rights groups are demanding an end to these injustices, and movements are seeking lasting solutions to the problems of discrimination and cultural genocide.

The Mayans are also the architects of the problems they face, especially in areas like Petén in Guatemala, where tropical forests are being felled at an alarming rate to give way to cornfields. The population of Petén has skyrocketed from 15,000 in 1950 to over 300,000 today, and new settlers keep arriving from southern Guatemala, putting enormous pressure on the region’s natural resources. . According to a study by NASA and the National Geographic Society, in the four-year period from 1988 to 1992 alone, 1,130 acres of forest were cleared by farmers. Petén is however the largest expanse of forest that survives in Central America; the problem became so acute that in 1990 Guatemala had 40% of the landlocked population. 100 of the territory of Petén to make it a Mayan biosphere reserve.

Disappearance of the forest

With the disappearance of the forest, its treasures vanish. Wildlife is dying, ancient Mayan sites are exposed to looting, and entire chapters of human and natural history are in danger of being forgotten forever. People who work for government-sanctioned environmental groups, like the National Council of Protected Areas of Guatemala, live under the constant threat of attacks and arson by loggers and other protagonists eager to profit from the environment. destruction of forests.

The Mayan people had to endure wave after wave of conquests that continue to this day. Their attachment to the land, their devotion to their community, and their deeply held belief system have enabled them to ensure the survival of their cultural and physical environment. The fact remains that certain ethnologists continue to doubt the capacity of the Mayan culture to overcome the assaults of the modern world. For decades, the Mayans have been the target of attacks from all sides: clashes between the army and guerrillas in Guatemala, the invasion of tourism, destruction of tropical forests and encroachment on the territories traditionally reserved for them.
However, all hope is not lost. The Mayans kept many of their agricultural and trading traditions intact. Like their ancestors, most households grow maize, and many sell their handicrafts, such as fabrics, in the market. Unlike their pre-Conquest ancestors, however, many men also donate their labor for part of the year to coffee and cotton plantations in the lowlands.

The ancient Mayan calendar has also survived remarkably well. In the Mayan highlands, many communities still have their priest-shamans or “guardians of the days” whose task is to count the cycle of days according to the Mayan calendar and to order the holding of traditional rituals for the benefit of the people. people and the entire community.

Mayan intellectuals also began to understand that various language groups must come together to ensure the survival of the Mayan culture and languages. The most reassuring aspect to some observers is that the Mayan populations currently tend to prosper rather than die out, and the heightened awareness they have of forming a unified people endowed with a glorious past and a great capacity for adaptation will not help them to stay above the wave for centuries to come.

Olmecs | Mexico, 3000 years of history (Mesoamerican Civilizations Before the Aztecs and Mayans)

Sources: PinterPandai, WikipediaHistory, FAMSIHanksville,

Foto credit: Daniel Schwen [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Photo explanations: Kukulcán pyramyd. Maya civilization. El Castillo, di Chichen Itza – Mexico.

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